How to Overcome Your Greatest Disappointments

by | Mar 15, 2011 | Achieving Balance | 96 comments

Maybe you didn’t get the promotion.  Maybe a thief broke into your house and made off with every precious thing you owned.

Or maybe the person you fell in love with and wanted to marry didn’t return your feelings.

It happens to all of us.  If you’re ambitious about life, you’ve suffered disappointments along with success.

In fact, it seems like the more you find success, the more it stings when things don’t go your way.  You wonder, how in the world could this happen to me?

I hadn’t planned to write this post.  I was all set to talk about choosing between two passions and how to negotiate your career love triangles.

Then my husband and I received some devastating news.

Penelope Trunks says there is danger in not talking about the real disappointments in our lives.  So I’m going to talk about it.

Because I know my readers, who are successful and ambitious, will face disappointments of their own.  And sometimes, the best time to write about how to find your way out is when you’re in the middle of it.

Our story

Our daughter is a miracle.

Every mother who looks at her newborn child says that of course, but in our case it’s true.  Our daughter is the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

It took us a long time to get pregnant.  For 18 straight months I cried on the edge of the bed when I realized all the pregnancy symptoms I’d been experiencing were just in my head.  I blamed myself for waiting until I completed my Ph.D.  I came to resent the seeming multitude of pregnant women in our neighborhood.

Jealousy and despair do funny things to people.

But as soon as we got that positive test, we put all that behind us and enjoyed our good fortune.  We immediately shared the news with family and friends.  We naively picked out baby names and furniture, delighting at the nausea and then the swift kicks to my ribs.

Everything was fine.  Better than that, our daughter was born without a hitch and became the joy of our lives.  We loved being parents a thousand times more than we ever dreamed we would.  We loved it so much, we couldn’t wait to add another (or two) to our family.

Then, we waited.  And waited.

Just last week, we learned that our latest (and last) round of fertility treatment had failed.

After three long years of treatment and two miscarriages, we’ve finally decided to let go of the dream.

So here’s everything I’ve learned, from my own experiences and others, about overcoming the emotional toll of defeat, and more importantly, how to keep on living well in spite of it.

1. Take time for reflection

Once the sting of a traumatic event begins to lessen, it’s a great time to take stock of your motivations.  After our second loss, when I wasn’t sure if I could continue with the intensity and madness that comes with fertility treatment, we asked ourselves why we wanted another child.

Was it because we worried our daughter would be damaged in some way without a sibling?  Were we trying to please our families?  Or was it simply that we thought another child would fill our lives with more joy?

The answer is important but it wasn’t obvious.  We spent a lot of time talking and imagining how our lives would change whether we had another child or didn’t.

How this applies to you: Sometimes our disappointment is driven by a fear of change that isn’t real.  We wrap our self-worth around awards and promotions that aren’t meaningful (or if they are, it makes that self reflection even more valuable).  Whether it’s therapy or just discussing things with a friend, get clear on why you wanted what you did.  You might find that your disappointment is an opportunity to change course towards a more positive direction.

2. Don’t give up too soon

Once you know why you’re fighting for a dream, it’s a lot easier to keep going.    I don’t care to admit how many times I confided to friends, “this is our last try,”  and then changed my mind after finding it impossible to put our daughter’s crib up on Craigslist.

Brooke Shields attempted in vitro fertilization seven times before she finally had her baby Rowan.  John Grisham’s story A Time to Kill was rejected 28 times before it found a publisher.

How this applies to you: There’s no magic number of times you try something before it either works or you concede to quit with honor.  There are no guarantees your persistence will pay.  You just have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and believe, “I gave it everything I had.”

3.  Find a way to laugh

Most people won’t do this.  They’ll blow it off as silly, but it’s really powerful.  Laughter releases “feel good” chemicals such as serotonin into the body, relieving tension and providing a momentary escape from the emotions that plague you.

It’s also a heck of a lot more fun than crying.

When I am feeling really depressed by my inability to conceive, I watch these hilariously poignant videos called “Birds and Bees Can’t Always Make Babies.”  (Warning: there are a ton of inside jokes in those videos. It’s not my fault if you don’t find them funny too, but hey, good for you.  That means you’re not infertile.)

How this applies to you: I’m convinced you can find a funny video on almost any topic on You Tube.  If that doesn’t work, nothing cures the job blues better than your favorite comedy, a bowl of ice cream, and a great big belly laugh.  Just do it.

4. Don’t dwell in your disasters

Infertility treatment can be all consuming.  You can’t use exercise or travel as a distraction.  You look like a junkie from all the blood draws, injections, and acupuncture sticks.  And then you have to make up excuses as to why you  have a doctor’s appointment every other day for weeks.  For a whole year, many of my co-workers thought I was battling cancer.

After all that, I have to tell you, a negative result (or worse, a loss) was devastating.  And each successive failure was worse than the last.

Some days, it is hard to get up in the morning and care about much of anything outside my uterus.

Then I remind myself that I won the lottery once.  Who am I to complain I can’t win a second time?

How this applies to you: During times like these, gratitude only comes with practice.   Focus on what’s going right in your life; make a list of all the “lucky breaks” you’re probably taking for granted.  Then allow yourself to enjoy them.  You don’t have to pay homage to what could have been by being miserable.  Pay your respects by acknowledging that what you have is enough.

5. Grieve

A dream has died.

One of the big myths about grief is that it’s something you just “get over.”   In fact, though you never stop grieving, you do learn to live with it.  The problem is, you can’t get there logically.  You have to follow the soggy breadcrumbs of your emotions and hope they take you home.

Recently I had a nightmare. I was taking my kids to school and I was (as usual) a bit late.  We were rushing and I was pulling them along beside me. When I looked down I realized one hand was empty. I was frantic.  I couldn’t find my child.  How could a child go missing without me even realizing it?

When I awoke, all was right with the world.  My husband was curled into a ball, a cat tucked behind his knees.  Down the hall and past the nightlight, I knew there was a girl in her Princess bed, right where she ought to be.

How this applies to you:  Setting and reaching for ambitious goals are important.  It’s what keeps life interesting.  But there’s no point in ruining the life you already have in pursuit of the one you can’t.  Don’t let your dead dream become a ghost that hovers over your life.

I love what this blogger had to say after receiving a diagnosis of autism at the age of 50

I’m grieving what was never there to begin with. I’m grieving an idea of myself and of my place in the world. I am not grieving what is or what was. I am grieving what doesn’t exist and what has never existed, except in my own thoughts.  [But] there will be new dreams, different dreams, dreams that are based on what is real.

You can’t always be lucky.  And when your heart is broken, you can’t always be happy.

But you can be brave.  You can embrace hope like an old friend … the one who lied, the one you forgave.

Keep dreaming.